by Marion Nestle

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Aug 14 2020

Weekend reading: Jessica Harris’s Vintage Postcards

Jessica Harris. Vintage Postcards from the African World: In the Dignity of Their Work and the Joy of Their Play.  University of Mississippi Press, 2020.

Amazon.com: Vintage Postcards from the African World: In the Dignity of  Their Work and the Joy of Their Play (Atlantic Migrations and the African  Diaspora) eBook: Harris, Jessica B.: Kindle Store

I reviewed this book for Food, Culture, and Society, which published my review online on July 23, 2020.  It won’t appear in print until November 2021.  Emily Contois, the fabulous book review editor, is way ahead.

Here’s what I said about it.

Some years ago, I was in Woods Hole and hopped on the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard to visit Jessica Harris at her cottage in the historic African-American community at Oak Bluffs. I knew her as the distinguished culinary historian, cookbook author, and scholar of the African food diaspora. In the early years of NYU’s food studies program, she taught brilliant courses on food and culture that I sat in on whenever I could. She is now retired from a long teaching career at Queens College.

During that Oak Bluffs visit, Harris showed me boxes packed with old postcards depicting Africans – and their descendants throughout the world – growing, carrying, preparing, and eating food. I couldn’t stop looking at them, and I’ve never stopped wondering what happened to them. This book is the answer, and a perfect fit with the University of Mississippi’s series on Atlantic Migration and the African Diaspora, which Harris edits.

In addition to her other accomplishments, Harris is a passionate deltiologist, a term new to my vocabulary meaning one who collects – and sometimes studies – postcards, which Harris had been doing for fifty years. She begins the book with three short essays – a description of when, how, and where she amassed her collection; a discussion of what can be learned from postcards and the kinds of questions that need to be asked about them (illustrated with about 25 examples); and a history of the introduction and use of postcards from the 1870s on. She also includes guidelines on how to estimate a postcard’s date (not easy).

But most of the book is devoted to 168 color illustrations of postcards from her collection, almost all from the early 1900s. These illustrate people at work and play from Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States in three categories: farm, garden, and sea; marketplace, venders, cooks; and leisure, entertainments, and festivities. Their captions repeat information printed on the front, state whatever is printed or written on the back, and, if the card is stamped, give the date it was mailed. For example, a photograph of a Caribbean sugar warehouse (which reminded me of Kara Walker’s magnificent 2014 “sugar baby” sculpture in Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Factory), is captioned: “Stacking Bags of Raw Sugar. Back: Post Card British Manufacture. Printed for the Imperial Institute by McCorquodale & Co. Ltd. London. A Red Bromide Photograph. (Divided Back.)” (84).

That’s it. Unless the card has this information, the captions say nothing about who took the picture, where, and in what year, who is depicted, its context, its purpose, or whether it was taken in a studio. In her introductory essay, “”Interrogating the Images,” Harris says “I am not a postcard scholar” (19). She collected and selected the cards for their illustration of culinary or cultural history and colonial exploitation, but also for their beauty, curiosity, or inscrutability. If you want to know more, it’s up to you to find that out and develop your own interpretation.

Despite that protestation, Harris cannot avoid taking a scholar’s approach. She points out the colonial attitudes expressed in the images or their titles–“elegant banana seller” (30), or the bare-breasted women selling foods at a “native” market in Dakar that looks like something out of the early years of National Geographic. This market could not possibly be in Dakar, Harris notes, Senegal is a Muslim country, where women did not appear in public unclothed.

In this era of #BlackLivesMatter, it is uncomfortable to look at images of picturesque poverty or colonial exploitation: “Blacks in a Moorish café” (68), “Zulus at Mealtime” (69), or even “Water coconut vendor” (97) are depicted as exotics. Given its racist history, the United States postcards are particularly problematic: “Polly in the Peanut Patch” (110), “Negro Vegetable Vendor” (123), “Old/Southern Kitchen and Negro Manny” (130) should and do make us squirm. It’s hard to view “Food for contention” (135) as just a charming photograph of a little girl reaching for her brother’s watermelon slice if such images weren’t so fraught with racist meanings.

Each of these images has a story behind it that calls for analysis by food studies scholars. Harris’s Vintage Postcards should inspire all of us to become avid deltiologists.

Mar 31 2020

What does $2 Trillion do for US Food Systems? (Not much, alas)

President Trump’s $2 Trillion relief package is the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020.’’

This 880-page (!) bill addresses food systems in several ways, most of them in “Title I Agricultural Programs” which starts on page 609 like this:.

For an additional amount for the ‘‘Office of the Secretary’’, $9,500,000,000, to remain available until expended, to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus by providing support for agricultural producers impacted by coronavirus, including producers of specialty crops, producers that supply local food systems, including farmers markets, restaurants, and schools, and livestock producers, including dairy producers: Provided, That such amount is designated by the Congress as being for an emergency requirement pursuant to section 22 251(b)(2)(A)(i) of the Balanced Budget and Emergency 23 Deficit Control Act of 1985.

This sounds good (in Ag-speak, specialty crops are fruits and vegetables), but what this means in practice, according to the New York Times, is

  • About $23.5 billion in assistance to farmers ($9.5 in subsidies, $14 in borrowing authority)

But this will go mainly to soy and corn producers, key Trump constituents in an election year.  This amount follows nearly $26 billion in aid already provided to offset losses from the China trade war.  This new funds exceed USDA’s entire discretionary budget request for next year.  The USDA Secretary may allocate the funds as he wishes, with no oversight.

So much for welfare for the rich.

As for the poor, the bill provides

  • About $25 billion for food assistance (domestic food programs $8.8 billion, SNAP $15.8 billion).

This too sounds like a lot but all it does is account for the expected increase in demand from people newly out of work.  It does not in any way increase the amount that individuals and families receive.

How did this happen?  Chalk it up to effective lobbying by agribusiness.

The gains for agribusiness were accomplished, says the Times, by “A small army of groups mounted the fast-moving campaign for aid, including the politically powerful American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Joining them were other smaller players representing producers of goods like turkey, pork and potatoes or sunflowers, sorghum, peanuts and eggs.”

Earlier, Politico reported that nearly 50 organizations representing farmers, equipment manufacturers and agricultural lenders sent a letter stating their needs as a result of declining demand from school and restaurant shutdowns and direct-to-consumer sales.

The bill does little to help the folks who most need help.  Anti-hunger groups tried, but failed.

Poor people need to vote.  And organize.

Jan 28 2020

USDA’s infographics on school food purchases

The USDA has produced four infographics on its purchasing practices for school meals.

  • USDA Foods in Schools – This infographic summarizes nationwide USDA Foods purchases including the average cost per pound by food group and the breakdown of total spending and pounds received by food group.
  • USDA Foods in Schools: Summary by Program – This infographic shows a summary of purchases from all three programs: USDA Foods Bulk for Processing, USDA Foods Direct Delivery, and USDA DoD Fresh. It is important to note that the USDA Foods Bulk for Processing section only includes items classified as a bulk product on the USDA Foods Available List.
  • USDA Foods in Schools: State Overview– This infographic shows the average number of products ordered by States and the top five products by dollar value and volume. This infographic also displays the value of food orders by State.
  • USDA DoD Fresh in Schools – This infographic provides an overview of USDA DoD Fresh purchases including a summary of the top five fruit and vegetables received and the total pounds purchased. It is important to note that the items available through USDA DoD Fresh may vary by State.

I took a look at the first one and got stopped cold by this:

Protein?  What’s that?  The answer:  meat, poultry, fish, eggs, peanut butter, and sunflower seed butter.

I also wondered what DoD Fresh was about.  It is an agreement between USDA and the Department of Defense to supply fresh fruits and vegetables to schools.

For school food aficionados, there is much information here in a readily accessible format.  Enjoy!

Dec 20 2019

Weekend reading: History and Ethics of Jewish Food

Aaron S. Gross, Jody Myers, and Jordan D. Rosenblum.  Feasting and Fasting: The History and Ethics of Jewish Food.  New York University Press, 2020. 

This book comes with heavy-duty endorsements: a Foreword by Hasia Diner, and an Afterword by Jonathan Safran Foer.

I was interested to read it and did a blurb for it.

Feasting and Fasting is a fascinating account of the history of Jewish food, within and outside of dietary laws.   The authors engage in Talmudic debates about how specific foods and diets as a whole do or do not define Jewish identity.  Crisco is for Jews?  Peanut oil caused such debates?  Who knew.  This book is a great read.

What to quote?  So many choices.  Here’s a snippet from Jordan Rosenblum’s chapter on Jews and garlic:

After the Exodus from Egypt, when the Israelites wandered in the desert, they grew tired of eating only manna.  Comparing the varied diet that they ate as slaves in Egypt to the unvaried diet that they now enjoyed as free women and men, a few troublemakers complained: “The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, “If only we had meat to eat!  We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.”

This, as it turns out, is the only mention of garlic in the Hebrew Bible.  In this chapter,

we shall briefly explore the historical association between Jews and garlic that develops over the next three millennia.  In doing so, we shall see how garlic eventually functions both internally (by Jews) and externally (by non-Jews) as a symbol that represents Self and Other—or, in the terminology favored in anthropology and food studies, how garlic operates as a metanym for Jews.

 

Jul 22 2019

Industry-funded study of the week: Walnuts

Replacing Saturated Fat With Walnuts or Vegetable Oils Improves Central Blood Pressure and Serum Lipids in Adults at Risk for Cardiovascular Disease: A Randomized Controlled‐Feeding Trial.  Alyssa M. Tindall, et al. Journal of the American Heart Association. 2019;8:May 7, 2019.

Conclusions: “Replacing saturated fatty acids (FAs) with 57 to 99 g/d of walnuts for 6 weeks reduced central diastolic blood pressure compared with a diet similarly low in saturated FAs but with lower α‐linolenic acid content…This study represents a feasible food‐based approach for replacing saturated FAs with unsaturated FAs (including α‐linolenic acid) from walnuts and vegetable oils, demonstrating that relatively small dietary changes can reduce cardiovascular risk.

Funding: This study was funded by the California Walnut Commission…The California Walnut Commission provided funds for the research conducted. The commission’s staff was not involved with any aspects of conducting the study, analyzing the data, or interpreting the results reported in this article.

Comment: Walnuts, like pretty much all other nuts and seeds, contain healthy fats and other nutrients.  When substituted for unhealthier foods, they would be expected to demonstrate improvements.  This study contributes no new information and there is only one reason to do it: marketing (as I discuss in Unsavory Truth).  The California Walnut Commission wants you to eat more walnuts.  Trade associations or producers of pecans, macadamia nuts. pistachios, almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts, and any other nut you can think of have the same goal.  Do they all have to do this kind of research?  Apparently so.

Mixed nuts, anyone?

Jul 18 2019

Snackification: a new word in my vocabulary

BakeryAndSnacks.com’s Special Edition: Snackex 2019 introduces the concept of “Snackification,” which as far as I can tell is the conversion of three square meals a day to all-day snacking.  Alas, snacks have calories; the more snacks the more calories consumed.  And most are ultra-processed, the term used to describe foods that are best consumed in small amounts.   The more snacks consumed, the happier the snack-food industry will be.  Hence: the push.

 

Mar 22 2019

Weekend reading: Gandhi’s dietary aspirations

Nico Slate.  Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet: Eating with the World in Mind.  University of Washington Press, 2019.  

Image result for Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet: Eating with the World in Mind

Let’s start with my blurb:

Nico Slate’s fascinating account reveals Gandhi as an evidence-based, self-experimenting nutrition guru who tried one diet after another—vegan, raw, calorie restriction–in his quest for physical and spiritual health.  Above all, Slate explains Gandhi’s use of fasting as a political means to inspire India to achieve independence.

Gandhi, it seems, was a food faddist well ahead of his time.  The author says:

As his commitment to vegetarianism deepened, Gandhi grappled with whether he should also forgo eggs and milk.  Ultimately, he became convinced that he should become vegan, and renounced all animal products.  Living without eggs was relatively easy.  Doing without milk, by contrast, proved to be one of the greatest challenges of his life.  He experimented with almond milk, peanut milk, and other vegan alternatives.  In 1914, he vowed to abstain from all dairy products.  But after contracting a serious illness, he decided that his pledge did not include goat’s milk. [p. 47]

The book explains how Gandhi’s dietary choices were tightly linked to his politics.

The social potential of a raw diet led Gandhi to explore the cheapest source of sustenance for the poor: wild food…The greatest ethical challenge stemmed from the limitations of wild food as a remedy for poverty.  If the goal was to end hunger, changes in diet would be insufficient if they were not linked to changes in land ownership and the distribution of wealth—change that seemed as impossible as eating ginger nonviolently. [ p. 97]

And one more:

In a world marred by inequality, charity could only do so much.  Ultimately, Gandhi did not want to help the poor; he wanted to end poverty.  Over time, he developed a deeper understanding of the link between famine and imperialism.  “India suffers from starvation because there is dearth not of grain,” he explained, “but of purchasing power.”  The absence of purchasing power was, in turn, a direct result of the economic structures of British rule…Recognizing famine as a result of empire inspired Gandhi to demand India’s freedom. [p.127]

Oct 16 2018

Connecting the dots: The trade war with China and feeding America’s poor

I was struck last week by an article in the Wall Street Journal with this intriguing title: “Food Banks Reap Unexpected Bounty From Trade Disputes.”

I thought this was an especially poignant example of food politics from a food systems perspective—looking at the big picture context of what we eat, from production to consumption to waste.

Image result for food systems

Our current trade war with China is having a series of effects:

  • China has retaliated by putting import tariffs on US food products, reducing their sales in that country.
  • Because we greatly overproduce food, and depend on exports to sell it, we now have a glut of products that can’t be sold—soybeans mainly, but also pork, apples, cheese, figs, peanut butter, orange juice, and others.
  • The Trump Administration says it will help farmers hurt by the trade dispute by buying their products to the tune of $1.2 billion so far.
  • Food banks have no idea how they can handle all of what will be dumped on them—950 million pounds on top of the 700 million pounds they usually get—because they do not have the money to process and store the donations (one organization says this costs 23 cents per pound of food).
  • The food bank trade association, Feeding America, is calling for $200 to $300 million to pay for distributing the excess burden of food donations.

None of this makes sense to me.

Wouldn’t it be a whole lot better to

  • Prevent or end this trade dispute?
  • Ensure that food banks are unnecessary?